How real was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross?

It never occurred to me, when I wrote my Touchstone article on the Jesus-legend theory, how many readers would find it hard to understand Jesus’ sacrifice as being truly genuine. Recently Andy wrote,

it is inconceivable to me how an infinite being could “sacrifice” anything – if Jesus was God allmighty, and he knew that he was, then he was never in any real danger and didn´t sacrifice anything. To “sacrifice” means to give up something valuable – but what has he given up? He didn´t lose any power (and if he is right, his power is infinite, will always be infinite, and “every knee will eventually bow to him”) and he didn´t lose his life, all that he might have given up is a few years of his (infinite) time – and how much would I have “sacrificed” if I had donated 100$ out of infinite$ on my bank account?

Later in the conversation, ScottInOH asked,

Sorry, I may just be dense! I’ve read the Touchstone article three times, and I see you state clearly that Jesus was “supremely powerful and supremely good” (or “supremely self-sacrificing”), but I don’t see you show why you think that. You say one can deduce Jesus’s character from “a good working knowledge of the content of the Gospels,” but you don’t cite much from the gospels (I see one from Mark). I assumed you had done a fuller analysis elsewhere, but maybe you’re thinking it’s obvious.

GM’s wry response to Andy was, “I guess voluntarily being humiliated and tortured to death doesn’t count for much these days.” It’s a good point, but if Jesus really was God, then what did he really give up? He knew how things would come out. Did he sacrifice anything at all?

He laid aside the privileges of deity

The answer begins with the Incarnation. The Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). His sacrifice began in a manger, or rather nine months earlier, when he set aside (emptied himself of) his prerogatives as God, to take on helpless human nature.

He was still God, but he was also human from that point forward. He was one Person with two natures. The divine nature was real and the human nature was real. (Christian theology generally takes it that he continues now in his human, incarnate form.) These are not simple matters. Their best definition and clarification, perhaps, is in the Chalcedonian Creed, which isn’t simple, either, though its formulation has stood the test of time.

This then is what Christianity believes: Jesus was God and man, the natures present but not intermingled or confused. While on earth he set aside the privileges of deity. He lived human life as a human walking perfectly God would live it, not as a God pretending to be human would live it. He obeyed the Father and performed miracles by the power of the Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.

He experienced his suffering as a human

In his humanity he had no sinful nature, but that does not mean he could not be tempted. To borrow an illustration from Keith Shubert, a teacher I studied under many years ago, what experiences more pressure when you try to break it with your hands: a pencil or a baseball bat? There was pressure on Jesus: pressure to perform miracles for his own benefit (see the early chapters of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, esp. Luke 4:1-13). There was the temptation to evade his trial, torture, and death (Luke 22:39-46). Medical doctors say that sweating blood, while extremely rare, is not unheard of. When it happens, usually it’s in response to extreme fear.

He may also have suffered in his divine nature

While I don’t understand how it could be possible, still it may be that he suffered in his deity as well. He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), indicating perhaps that at that moment God the Father withdrew fellowship from Jesus. This would be in line with Christians’ understanding of what Jesus was doing on the cross: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). In some sense our sins were placed upon him, so that their effect, death (Romans 6:23), would be fulfilled in him rather than in us. This death was not merely the cessation of physical life, it was separation from God the Father.

There are other interpretations of Matt. 27:46, but they apply only to the specific question of why he said that specific thing. There is no dispute over the horror of the pain and death he experienced–all of which he experienced as a human. Yes, he knew the outcome from the beginning—but he experienced it all in real time.

He did it by his own choice

He did all this by choice; he didn’t have to do any of it.

He didn’t have to be born. He was God; he had a choice in the matter.

He didn’t have to die. In John 10:17-18 he says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” He had a choice at the time of his arrest (Matt. 26:53-54): “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” When finally he died, it was by his own word (Luke 23:46).

Jesus’ sacrifice was for us, not for himself!

He did it for us while “we were still enemies” (Rom. 5:6-8):

 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

All that he did, he did for others

This is Jesus Christ as the Gospels portray him, and as his earliest followers understood him. This was his other-centeredness at its peak. There is more yet that could be said about him in that regard, but it can’t be summarized in an article, it must be read in the original sources. Look through the Gospels carefully and observe how Jesus spent his time. How much did he do for himself? How much did he do for others? How often did he use his extraordinary powers for his own benefit, and how often for others?

Try that out on yourself sometime, and then decide

Read the sources, then apply this, which I think may be the ultimate test: Try to imagine yourself living with the same ratio of other-attention to self-attention. Then ask yourself whether you can deny that Jesus’ character was truly unique.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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18 Responses

  1. Andy says:

    Three points:
    – So you say that the sacrifice was real because he laid aside the privileges of a deity? Well, I disagree. Ask yourself this – what did Jesus lose? What did he have before that he didn´t have afterwards? It seems to be analogous to a King who choses to live as a beggar for a while only to resume his role as King afterwards, without giving up any of his power or ressources (except for some time maybe (of which Jesus has infinitely much)).
    – You say that Jesus indeed could have been and was tempted. I can see this somewhat if this is exclusively about Jesus being tempted to evade the pain of being crucified, but for the other instances of Jesus being tempted, I´d maintain that they make no sense at all (especially Satan trying to tempt him by offering him something for which Jesus knows that he will have it anyway, without Satan giving it to him).
    But yeah, that there could be temptation to avoid the pain of crucifixion does make sense – although it is hard to imagine (at least for me) that it would be very tempting to avoid this pain, if you´d know how much good you can do for people you love by enduring this pain and if you´d know that it is only temporary.
    Also, do you believe that a) Jesus is fully God and that b) God is immutable and c) impassible or do you disagree with some of those?
    – You say “Look through the Gospels carefully and observe how Jesus spent his time. How much did he do for himself? How much did he do for others? How often did he use his extraordinary powers for his own benefit” – well, I´d respond by asking “what does Jesus not have but would like to have?” (assuming that Jesus can have wants of course). If you cannot think of anything or if you´d even say that Jesus qua being God allmighty cannot “lack” anything, then he logically cannot do anything “for himself” because he already has everything there is to have.

  2. BillT says:

    I wonder if it might be helpful for those wondering about Christ’s sacrifice and the payment for our sins that his death accomplished to understand just what he was paying for. All of us, believers and not, understand that when we act poorly towards someone that there is real harm done to that person. We’ve all caused it and we’ve all felt it. From a Christian perspective we understand that in this act of sin we create a debt.

    Here’s a brief illustration. You go to a friends house and (even accidentally) break his lamp. Either you pay for a new one or he pays for a new one our he goes without the lamp. The debt must be paid somehow.

    The question in the debt sin produces is who pays the debt. In our everyday lives sometimes the person we offend forgives us. Does that pay the debt. No, not really. In fact, it’s the person who is wronged who actually “pays” in that circumstance. Lots if not most wrongs are never reconciled. Who pays then.

    In our understanding the debts that sin creates are real and I think that probably squares with most everyone’s experience. They may exist on a metaphysical plane but they exist and are real none the less. In God’s economy they must be paid. The problem is who can pay them and with what currency.

    We understand the wages of sin are death. That’s the currency. Either sins are paid for or the wages of those sins come due. So, the payment Christ makes on the cross is not a metaphoric one. It’s real. Deadly real and with his suffering he makes good for the all the pain and suffering that all those who put their faith in him caused.

    Can you imagine what kind of suffering someone would have to go through to pay that kind of debt. That’s what he did.

  3. SteveK says:


    In our everyday lives sometimes the person we offend forgives us. Does that pay the debt. No, not really.

    Hmm…not sure I understand what you’re saying here since your next sentence seems to say the opposite. Perhaps you can clear this up for me.

    In fact, it’s the person who is wronged who actually “pays” in that circumstance.

    I agree with this. The person doing the forgiving is paying for the offence. They are giving up the thing that is owed to them.

  4. MikeH says:

    Are you using the term “sacrifice” in relation to Christ based on its use in the New Testament, as in Hebrews 9:26? The Greek word translated “sacrifice” does not mean “giving up something for someone else.” It means “offering.” Jesus offered himself in death to atone for humanity’s rebellion. (As BillT spoke about) The contemporary meaning of “sacrifice” does include the idea of “giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone” (Merriam-Webster) but that’s not how the NT uses it (or the OT for that matter). I think it’s important to make that distinction.

    That the Son did “give up something for others” is clear, as Philippians 2:5-8 articulates. This was an act of humility and meekness motivated by compassion in his incarnation and suffering. Then Philippians 2:9-11 follows.

  5. BillT says:


    Sorry, that should have been clearer. In one sense, yes, the person who offers forgiveness is offering to pay the debt. In the other sense, in what I described following, is the cosmic debt really paid by that. I guess that’s a bit of an open question but I think not. That’s still a “blot on the escutcheon” that we have to rely on Christ’s sacrifice to fully erase.

  6. scblhrm says:

    Christ’s Landscape:

    There is no such thing as God-And. That is to say, Evil, Suffering, are we find that which is Privation, specifically, that Privation of all which we call the Self. And in Him – in Trinity – all that comprises such motions into Self, all that is those motions of all that is I and not You, Self and not Other, are of course present – and these to distances we the contingent in our hubris cannot hope to reach. That abandonment of, loss of, ad infinitum, all that we call Self is in Him found tasted, known, and this to distances we the contingent cannot even hope to ever spy. The created Self in privation tastes nothing new, nothing farther and the hubris of those who so assert only reveals a straw man god of some un-Christian form. No. God does not discover here in our world, rather, it is we who ever discover in all possible worlds in the business of Time and actualization the contours of the Unchanging God. Whatever that abandonment into all that is the Self, Privation, into Self and not Other can house in all possible worlds is found fully present – beyond our scope of sight – there in the Necessary Being, even as, whatever the business of the Self-Abandonment houses – there in Love’s Eternal Sacrifice of Self – there in You and not I is in all possible worlds known and to the full there in the Necessary Being and it is we the created who are in Possible Worlds discovering such contours – whether by obedience or by disobedience. There is no such thing as Love void of Self. There is no such thing as Love void of Other. There is no such thing as Love void of the singular Us. And these in Trinity are found each to the full, not in mere gesture, not in some form of con or half-truth, but utterly, literally, actually. The Pure Self? Yes – see such there in Him. The Pure Other? Yes – behold such there in Him. Love’s singular Us? We spy such in Him – and infinitum. I and not You, You and not I and each in brutal distances the contingent self cannot fathom. God – Immutable Love – Trinity – articulates, “Let Us make man in Our Image” and Genesis’ Actuality is the OT’s Actuality, is the NT’s Actuality, as Actuality finds Man in the lap of Personhood’s inescapably triune milieu of Self-Other-Us within the ceaseless reciprocity of the immutable love of the Necessary Being. Therein – in Trinity – love’s timeless Sacrifice, pouring out, of all which we call Self – amid and among the timeless Filling of all which we call the Beloved/Other forever begets within such living waters all which just is the singular Us – and this ad infinitum void of what we call First, void of what we call Last, void of what we call Thirst. Such triune contours within the immutable love of the Necessary Being bring us to the ends of what Man can call sight as he peers into He Who first precedes, then endures, and finally outreaches, outdistances, all possible worlds. The exegesis of filiation, of the eternally begotten as a proper and orthodox semantic paradigm is there forever housed within the Triune, that is to say, within those motions which both the intellectual and existential affirm as comprising love, Who Scripture affirms is Himself God. A key that unlocks: God cannot Sin – as in – All Sufficiency cannot know In-Sufficiency – and this takes nothing from God, while it may take away from some straw man non-god *god*. While Self and not Other within Him reveals the Great I AM, Man is by necessity the Contingent Self, fashioned in His Image – in God’s, the Triune’s, Image – and therein Man’s Means and Man’s Ends just are those motions found within Trinity by which all his (man’s) hope – all his (man’s) means and ends – are reduced to one word: Other.

    In Christ we find all that is Love’s Suffering, all that is Love’s Joy, ever spied within the beauty of the infinite, the contours of all that is trimotional, as in Him we spy the most robust articulation of the immutable love of the Necessary Being ever to actualize, fill up, and ultimately subsume all that is called Time and Physicality to their bitter – bloody – Ends. Thereby He pulls all into Himself, filling all with Himself, and this is our Hope – this is Man redeemed, and its name is Love, and its cost is that which we the contingent Self cannot fathom.

  7. Ray Ingles says:

    scblhrm – I genuinely think you’d have more fruitful interaction here. Give it a look-see, they really seem more your style.

  8. scblhrm says:


    If it weren’t for both the beauty and the coherence of both the Cross and Incarnation as such pull in all that is contingency and the underived, perhaps. But, this combined with the incoherency of metaphysical naturalism, and of the straw man versions of Cross/Incarnation and so on, there’s enough to go around.

  9. scblhrm says:


    The “straw man” thing:

    Andy’s analysis presupposes all the wrong starting points and thus ends in all the wrong places. “Prepare for Me a Body” uttered within Timelessness finds those distances previously alluded to as ever the disqualification of such an analysis, in more ways than one.

  10. BillT says:


    Since Ray mentioned it. Your above post #6 is flat out unintelligible. Though I’ve enjoyed a few of your offerings, for the most part the things you bring here are mostly like the above. (Even your two sentence reply to Ray) Doesn’t it strike you that here on this blog where people address each other and each others’ posts personally and specifically, no one seems to address you except to say they don’t understand a word you are saying. That along with the fact that you post probably more words than anyone else here makes your offerings…. Well, perhaps you could consider what I’ve said here and come up with a word for it yourself.

  11. scblhrm says:


    As an extension of Augustine’s privation of good we break down all of our interactions as a created being – a Self, into that….. privation or unity with another. Obviously each of us is a person, only, personhood’s relationality just isn’t isolated to “that” (to Self). The Trinity brings in (if privation) all of our own contextual experiences of loss and gain, of pouring out and of filling, and so on, up there in Him in many ways, and in degrees (distances) we (being contingent) can’t claim to surpass. As such, sacrifice is a thing, a reality, or what have you, which we discover, learn of, behold (or what have you), and which He knows (fully) in ways we cannot even begin to contain.

    The esoteric, the connotation, are here (IMO) far more interesting to draw out in words……

  12. scblhrm says:

    Bill T,

    The version I put in again did not come through. I’ll try one more time.

    As an extension of Augustine’s privation of good we break down all of our interactions as a created being – a Self, into that….. privation or unity with another. Obviously each of us is a person, only, personhood’s relationality just isn’t isolated to “that” (to Self). “Other” comes in. As does the “us”. And so on. Obviously the Privation of any such line in God just is God, but that fact does not make null and void His motions in those very same contours of personhood, of relation. And in and by relation comes all the affairs of Good, of Evil, of Loss, of Gain, and so on. The Trinity brings in (if privation) all of our own contextual experiences of loss and gain, of pouring out and of filling, and so on, up there in Him in many ways, and in degrees (distances) we (being contingent) can’t claim to surpass. As such, sacrifice is a thing, a reality, or what have you, which we discover, learn of, behold (or what have you), and which He knows (fully) in ways (distances) we cannot even begin to contain.

    The esoteric, the connotative, are here (IMO) far more interesting to draw out in words, although the hard, math-like unpacking of such is helpful as well. Though, the later seems somehow less “real” in many ways. As in, all this stuff of Incarnation, of the Cross, and so on, just is not math-like. And so drawing it in words seems (perhaps) a task “better” undertaken with a bit less of math, and a bit more of felt-nuance.

  13. Ray Ingles says:

    (BTW, just in case – I wasn’t being sarcastic or condescending in #7.)

  14. BillT says:


    So, in reply to my above you quite intentionally post not only another totally unintelligible post but one that has nothing to do with what I wrote. The childishness, arrogance, and rudeness of your reply is simply stunning.

  15. Tom Gilson says:

    I agree with you, Ray and BillT, that some of scblhrm’s writings are impossible to interact with.

    What I mean by that, scblrhm, isn’t that they’re impossible to read or understand. On that count they are just extremely difficult and prone to multiple interpretations by way of guessing what you meant.

    For example, Google has a record of exactly 2 uses of “trimotional” in American or British English. One is another blog comment of yours, and the other is a wrong answer option on a multiple-choice chemistry test. What that means is that in this as in other cases you call on us to infer what you mean based on very little or no information at all. Inference is both difficult and ambiguous in such cases, which makes interpretation extremely challenging and interaction really quite impossible.

    There is a poetic quality to what you write, which I think (and I have said this before) would be of great interest and value in the right context, but these comment threads are for interaction. I’m going to ask you again to consider finding another venue for your more creative language usage, and to keep your comments here within the realm of what we can interact with. Thank you.

  16. scblhrm says:


    I was just trying to start a process of explaining the basic framework of my thoughts or my approach in hopes of unpacking my obviously obtuse post there. The more technical aspects of the Cross are better served by you and Tom and others as I just don’t have a genuine theological background. My walk here with Him has been this series of “me / Him” lines and in Christianity’s trinity I find so much of that fleshed out in its very tangible “I and You” lines and that is just amazing (for me). “Sacrifice” seems inescapable in Him, though I’ve essentially ruined any hopes of that coming to light here.

  17. BillT says:


    I have a sometimes bad tendency to be very direct. I am sorry if I offended you. However, I know that Tom and I and Ray and others have repeatedly let you know that you were failing to communicate in any way that was even somewhat understandable. And you where less than somewhat understandable at great length. I sincerely hope you will continue to post here. I know that you have things to offer our conversation. I’ve seen them. Please join us.

  18. scblhrm says:

    Tom and BillT,

    BillT you have thinking/writing I find too valuable to drop so you have nothing to worry about – your assessment was perfectly fitting. Tom thank you for your attempt at a try with Google and for your patience. Christology is just beautiful and also interesting and learning the language takes time and as I’ve been reading here and elsewhere the paradigms of impassibility and of the eternal sacrificial nature housed within God – specifically the Triune God – repeatedly come to the surface. Self-Sacrifice within the Uncaused has to mean something, it seems to me, and while a rock may be impassible in the literal sense, in many senses God is not impassible in “that” sense. From that point forward we give what we have – whether the robust theological essays full of historical references (GM’s dialogue with Andy in “I don’t understand the indifference toward Jesus Christ”) to the many and varied less technical abstractions of various modes of how His eternally self-sacrificial nature stands relative to what must be a real independence from any kind of creation, or how it relates to the Trinity or to the Cross itself.

    I’ve been discovering that error can abound if we move too far and I think it was the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann who had some very insightful looks into love’s sacrificial nature within the Trinity – though there were (are) times I find another’s critique of him to have been a good off-set or counter-balance to avoid error. On the risk of error and on the benefit of real insight when it comes to His Triune Nature: “Let me ask of my reader, wherever, alike with myself, he is certain, there to go on with me; wherever, alike with myself, he hesitates, there to join with me in inquiring; wherever he recognizes himself to be in error, there to return to me; wherever he recognizes me to be so, there to call me back. . . . And I would make this pious and safe agreement, . . . above all, in the case of those who inquire into the unity of the Trinity, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; because in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” (Augustine, On the Trinity)

    I’m not in full agreement with all of Alvin Plantinga’s descriptions of things though I do agree that whatever suffering is relative to the “self”, whatever “self-sacrifice” is, it is found uncreated, eternal, within the Nature of the Divine and that while we too know it – we simply cannot know it as fully as Him. It seems all of our definitions of love and of such housed at the end of ad infinitum coheres nowhere but in Trinity:

    “As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. So we don’t know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that He was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.” (Plantinga)

    The question, “How real was Jesus sacrifice on the Cross” is a good one – and, if I may add just one more thought on that, it seems we can dissolve the whole point of the question merely by looking into the very nature of eternal, uncreated, self-sacrifice. It is – it seems – in the Christian ontology alone where such a paradigm can even begin cohering, and in the Christian God of course it does far more than that. Once inside of the immutable love of the Necessary Being (the Trinity’s relational landscape) there is no further question about the “real-ness-of” His Sacrifice – both with and without any created agent. On Sacrifice, on Love, it just is the state of affairs that God “is” – while Man “discovers”. It (literally) cannot be the reverse.

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